When Marilyn Calvin and her husband, Kenneth, purchased their Mt. Vernon, Mo., farm in 1972, he worked full time. “I was really the farmer at that time,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of opportunity for women, and I probably made just as much money raising strawberries and pigs, which allowed me to stay home with my kids.”
After her husband, Kirk, died in a farm accident in 1999, Susan Jahn kept her family land in Jackson, Mo., and continued to raise hogs until her son, Scott, was old enough to decide if he wanted to farm. Today, the mother-son pair farm together with 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat and run an excavating business. Susan also maintains her farrow-to-finish swine operation.
Susan and Kirk Jahn established their farm after they married in 1978 and worked together for more than 20 years before his death. Susan was actively involved in the operation, which she said helped her continue to farm without him and equipped her to assist their son, Scott, today. The Jahns’ daughter, Kelly, lives in Columbia and works for a large-scale hog operation. She and her husband, Dan Wendell, have one son and a daughter due in January.
Shaun Ludwig, left, agronomy key account manager based at MFA Agri Services in Risco, Mo., visits with Jacob Knapp and his grandmother, Frankie Knapp, on their Gideon, Mo., farm. Jacob took over the day-to-day operation in 2018, with Grandma helping him with bookkeeping and marketing.
Marilyn milks 200 cows with hired hand, Louis Salas, who has worked on the dairy for 14 years. With two people, milking takes three hours.
The Jahns operated an excavating service before Kirk’s death, and Scott re-established that business when he started farming full time. Susan helps him haul dirt when she’s not busy with other farm chores.
Frankie said she intends to leave Jacob the family farm that she and her late husband, Rayvon, established in 1952. Jacob is now teaching his sons, Gavin, left, and Brayden, to farm with him. Frankie faced a special challenge—she was widowed twice. She remarried but kept farming her own land. Her second husband, Larry Henry, who farmed separately near Kansas City, died about 10 years ago.
In 2010, Marilyn Calvin lost her best friend and business partner when her husband, Kenneth, died suddenly of an aneurism. After his death, Marilyn continued to operate their Mt. Vernon, Mo., dairy farm, which she and Kenneth had established in 1972.
There’s not much time for grieving when the cows have to be milked.
“When we got married, Kenneth had a shotgun and a car payment,” she said. “We started with nothing and bought this farm a piece at a time. I didn’t want to lose that.”
Today, Marilyn partners with their son, Kenlee, to milk 200 cows, mostly Holsteins, and care for 170 replacement heifers. They also raise corn silage, grain and hay and maintain an intensive grazing system on 550 acres.
“I’m just as much a farmer as anyone,” Marilyn said. “I milk in the morning, feed calves every day and help at night when needed.”
According to the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture, 36% of all U.S. producers are female, and 56% of all farms have at least one female decision-maker. However, Karen Funkenbusch, specialist in human development at the University of Missouri Extension, believes women farmers are undercounted.
“Many say ‘I only handle the books,’ ‘I only order seed,’ ‘I only handle the marketing,’ or ‘I only handle the health of the cattle,’” Funkenbusch said. “These women don’t realize they make important business decisions.”
USDA doesn’t track the percentage of women carrying on farming operations after their husbands die, but there are plenty of women who do. Susan Jahn is one of them. She was widowed at age 40 when her husband, Kirk, was killed in an accident on their Jackson, Mo., farm in March 1999—just a month shy of his 40th birthday.
Susan was left with two young children, a large farrow-to-finish swine operation, an excavating business and 2,200 acres of row crops. It was Easter time, just before planting season. They’d already bought their seed for the year. She didn’t know what else to do but jump in the tractor and put that seed in the ground.
“I’d be out there in the field and plant some of my rows crooked, and I’d sit there and cry. I knew Kirk was looking down on me, and I couldn’t even plant straight for him,” Susan recalled, still misty-eyed when she talks of her late husband. “I had my faith to get me through, but I would still get so mad and wonder, ‘Why?’ He was supposed to be here farming with me.”
Susan and Kirk were high school sweethearts who married at age 19 and worked together for 20 years to build their farming operation. Their son, Scott, and daughter, Kelly, were 9 and 7, respectively, at the time of their father’s death.
After planting and harvesting that first season following the accident, Susan decided to cut back and focus more on her young family. She sold some of their larger farming and excavating equipment at auction. She gave up their rented ground but kept her hog operation and the family’s own 400 acres, which she rented to other farmers.
In 2009, when Scott was a senior in high school, he told his mother he wanted to farm rather than go to college. Susan put the tuition money she’d saved toward some land for him, and he picked up other rental acreage here and there to go along with the family farm.
“He’s Kirk made over,” Susan said. “Scotty always knew he was going to farm, he was going to excavate, he was going to do everything his dad did. He wanted to build it all back up again.”
Today, Susan and Scott together raise corn, soybeans and wheat on 1,200 acres. Susan helps with planting, harvesting and hauling dirt for the excavating business. She also manages 200 head of Duroc, Hampshire and crossbred hogs, mainly on her own.
“I’m doing everything I did when Kirk was here,” Susan said. “It’s hard, but it’s what I’ve always done. That’s why I picked it up so easily. I have friends who will ask why I’m still out there in the tractor or the combine all day long, and it’s simple. Farming’s all I know how to do. And I love it.”
The same can be said of Frankie Knapp of Gideon, Mo., who, at 85, is still actively involved in the farm that she began operating with her late husband, Rayvon, in 1952. Married at age 18, they farmed together 44 years before Rayvon died in 1996 from a series of health complications, including a heart valve replacement, kidney failure and lymphoma.
At the time, the Knapps were farming 2,000 acres of their own land and rented ground. Their sons, Ricky and Craig, had taken over much of the day-to-day farming responsibilities as Rayvon’s health failed. The brothers farmed for 10 more years until they lost contracts on their rental properties. The 700 acres they owned weren’t enough to support three families. So Frankie rented the ground to other farmers until 2018 when she offered her grandson, Jacob Knapp, a chance to take over the family farm.
Jacob, Craig’s son, grew up farming with his dad and uncle and started his own operation in 2006. But in 2008, the land he was renting was sold, and he had to quit. He worked as a farmhand for other producers in the area until he began farming with his grandmother last year.
“I’m 85 years old. How much longer do I have?” Frankie said. “I’d rather have family farming it, and I think that’s what Rayvon would have wanted, too. Jacob’s the fifth generation to farm here.”
Taking active roles
Having intimate knowledge of their farming business made it easier for Marilyn, Susan and Frankie to take over management after their husbands died. Like many farm wives, they handled the bookkeeping and finances from the beginning of their marriages. They also participated in farm labor and decision-making.
“I always ran everything, even when Rayvon was alive,” Frankie said. “I did the books and the marketing. I was on call 24 hours a day.”
Taking active roles in the industry can also help position farm women—widowed, married or single—to be taken seriously in the male-dominated world of agriculture, Marilyn said. She worked her way up as a leader in the dairy industry for four decades. Every month, she attends a meeting of the Dairy Farmers of America Southeast Council, where she is the only elected female member. She’s also vice chair of the Midwest Dairy Association Ozark Division. In 2013, she was named to the Missouri Institute of Cooperatives Hall of Fame—the only woman farmer to receive the honor.
“There’s still a stigma among farmers about female farmers until they get to know you—that you really farm and you know what’s going on,” Marilyn said. “I’ve worked hard and earned the respect of other dairy farmers.”
Susan has been active in Farm Bureau and is currently serving on the Cape County Soil Conservation and Farm Service Agency boards. She said she’s made lifelong friends in these groups. Frankie kept books for a cotton gin in Gideon for 36 years, retiring from that job at age 69. The job gave her connections throughout the farming community and helped her gain firsthand knowledge of the marketing side of the business. It also helped keep grief from overwhelming her after Rayvon died.
“For a while, it seemed like having a job was the only thing that kept me alive,” Frankie said.
No matter how difficult the journey, carrying on their farming operations ultimately gives these women hope to preserve them for future generations. Scott and his wife, Laura, a schoolteacher, now have a young son named Kirk, after his grandpa. The toddler likes to tag along with Susan as she farms—just like her own children did when they were little.
“Little Kirk is there, too, just taking it all in. He can identify all our tractors, and he likes to see the pigs and ride in the combine with me,” Susan said. “I hope Scott continues on. I’m here to help his farm grow, and maybe he can do the same for his son someday.”
Frankie intends for grandson Jacob to continue the farming legacy she and Rayvon started more than 67 years ago. The 34-year-old now grows corn, cotton and soybeans, and his sons, Gavin and Brayden, are learning to farm with him.
“Farming is what I love, and I wanted my kids to be part of it, like I was raised,” Jacob said. “It works out great. I get along with Grandma, and she still helps me with all the marketing. She loves farming as much as me. It’s her passion.”
Sharing advice for farm wives
Susan said one of the hardest lessons she learned after Kirk’s death was that life as she knew it would never be the same. One minute, she, her husband and their kids were all working together in their farm shops and hog buildings. The next minute, he was gone. She advises other farm wives to be aware of that harsh reality.
“If you’re not prepared,” she added, “people can take advantage of you.”
Knowing that the unthinkable can happen, Susan, Marilyn and Frankie also offer these considerations for carrying on a farming operation after a spouse’s death.
You have to love it. “Learn now what farm life is really like,” Frankie said, pointing out that many wives work off the farm or aren’t involved in day-to-day operations. “You don’t farm for the money. It’s hard work, and you don’t make that much. But you’ll have a good life.”
Take an active role in farm finances, including keeping records and balancing the checkbook, Susan said.
Establish credit in your own name, Marilyn added. You can’t count on joint credit with your husband to suffice when you deal with vendors who don’t know you.
Build up savings and/or life insurance to assure you have the means to keep going. Also invest in crop, livestock and health insurance.
Get help. Frankie, Marilyn and Susan work with family members and hired help. If financing isn’t your forte, hire an accountant and make sure you understand lender expectations. MFA and other organizations can help with agronomic issues such as soil sampling and fertilizer application. USDA and the Extension Service also offer information, and USDA’s Women in Agriculture program provides mentors.
Protect your legacy for future generations. Consider setting up an estate plan to ensure the farm passes on according to your wishes. “It doesn’t matter whether you have red or green tractors, or beef or dairy cows, the land is your legacy,” Marilyn said. “Farmland is expensive, and if you sell it, there’s no way your kids can borrow the money to buy it back.”